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Donald Trump's grandfather got rich in the Yukon with hotels known for 'female companionship'

  • Author: Dermot Cole
  • Updated: July 7, 2016
  • Published September 12, 2015

FAIRBANKS -- The appetite for bluster and superlatives displayed by TV star and presidential candidate Donald Trump must be genetic.

His grandfather, Frederick Trump, joined the Klondike gold rush stampede and operated a series of restaurants and hotels, invariably boosting them as the "newest, neatest and best equipped north of Vancouver."

Trump, who came to the United States from Germany as a 16-year-old in 1885, learned the business basics in Seattle in the 1890s and changed his name from Friedrich to Frederick. As far as I can tell, he was known as Fred, not "The Fred."

"A quick study, Trump headed for a prime location, the city's red-light district, known as the Lava Beds," writes biographer Gwenda Blair. "There he leased a tiny storefront restaurant named the Poodle Dog, which had a kitchen and a bar and advertised 'private rooms for ladies' -- code for prostitutes."

The first thing you encounter in trying to unravel Fred Trump's Klondike connection is that the historical sources contain more blanks than Donald Trump's plans for the presidency. But it is pretty clear that when the gold strike in the Yukon caught the world's attention, Fred Trump was among the many in the Pacific Northwest who couldn't stand to be left behind.

He had run away from home in Germany because he didn't want to work in the vineyard or spend his life cutting hair, a trade he had been taught. He wanted to become a rich man, Blair said. The records show he ran restaurants and hotels in the Klondike, both at Lake Bennett and later at Whitehorse, using the name "Arctic" and "New Arctic."

He earned mixed reviews. A reader of the Yukon Sun newspaper wrote in April 1900: "I would advise respectable women traveling alone to be careful in their selection of hotels at Bennett."

He said Trump's restaurant was the best in Bennett and great for single men, "but I would not advise respectable women to go there to sleep as they are liable to hear that which would be repugnant to their feelings and uttered, too, by the depraved of their own sex."

When the White Pass & Yukon Railroad was complete, Trump moved his base of operations to Whitehorse with his partner, Ernest Levin.

"We have come to stay," Trump and Levin told readers of the Whitehorse Star in February 1901.

But Trump didn't stay long. By the end of that month he had broken it off with Levin and advertised that "I shall not be liable for any debts contracted by the said Ernest Levin." He said he was the sole owner of the New Arctic Hotel and Restaurant on Front Street and Levin was gone. A notice in the newspaper said Levin "left last week for a short visit to outside points."

They reconciled a few weeks later, but by late May the business was in Levin's hands alone and Trump was bound for Germany with a bundle he had made in the Klondike, the equivalent of more than a half-million dollars today. He didn't say "I'm really rich," as his grandson might have, but his holdings amounted to a "stupendous sum" for the time, Blair wrote. She said he knew the authorities were about to crack down on wild behavior and that it was time to cash in.

"The business of seeing to his customers' needs for food, drink and female companionship had been good to him," she said.

The elder Trump died during the Spanish flu epidemic in 1918, while his son -- the father of Donald Trump and also named Fred -- grew up to become one of the major real estate developers in New York City.

Blair, author of "The Trumps: Three Generations that Built an Empire," writes that the senior Fred Trump did not join the Klondike Gold Rush to get his hands dirty. But an 1898 book that was out of print for nearly 100 years adds a layer of confusion to the historical record.

"Two Years in the Klondike and Alaskan Gold Fields" tells of a man named Fred Trump who may have earned a fortune in gold or just missed out on one. It's possible there was a second man by the same name in the Yukon or that the 1898 account was a case of mistaken identity, confounded by absentee ownership.

Author William Haskell traveled to the Klondike in 1896, about a year and a half before the gold rush. He published his Klondike book at 32, while the stampede was still in progress in 1898. The University of Alaska Press brought Haskell's book back into print in 1998, with an introduction by my brother, UAF history professor Terrence Cole.

Part of the background to this incident is that in 1897, everything in Dawson was in short supply and even the prospectors who possessed promising claims had trouble getting food and other provisions there.

"Fred Trump owned a half interest in claim No. 46 below discovery on Hunker Creek," Haskell wrote, referring to one of the creeks that eventually produced thousands of ounces of gold.

In 1897, Trump made his way down the Yukon River, getting as far as Circle, to pick up supplies. But he had no money and "repeatedly tried to sell the property for $2,000," Haskell said. He found no takers in Circle.

Haskell said what Trump did not know was that after he left Dawson, the claim was producing $5 per pan, the equivalent of about $135 today.

"That night at 10 o'clock a well-equipped dog team started out over the ribbon of broken ice to Circle City with orders and gold dust to purchase the claim at any price under $25,000. At 4 o'clock the next morning a second team followed in hot pursuit and Dawson was left to wonder what the result of the race would be," Haskell wrote in early 1898. "When the ice goes out the world may know."

What the northern world may have known about the Trump claims in 1897-1898 has been long obscured by the passage of time. Blair said two associates of Donald's grandfather did file a Hunker Creek claim in his name in 1897 at a time when she believes Trump was still running a restaurant in Seattle. They unloaded the claim almost immediately, however, unaware that they were selling too soon.

The mystery about Fred Trump remains. If the man in Haskell's book was indeed the grandfather of the future Republican presidential candidate, he might have come close to a greater fortune. Or perhaps Haskell confused the absentee Trump with one of the men who acted on his behalf and gave up on a claim they should have held.

At this point we may never know the answers. If it was The Donald's ancestor described by Haskell, why would this part of the story not have become one of the Trump talking points, a lesson about making America great again? Donald's dad was only 12 when Fred the elder died, so perhaps there was never a chance to pass the details on or maybe it was a lost opportunity he wanted to forget.

The story remains a puzzle, just like the alchemy of myth and marketing in which a guy famous for bragging about his billions, as sincere as a professional wrestler, finds himself leading the Republican field.

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